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Piggybacking on Your Neighbor’s WiFi

Written by Nickel - 111 Comments

CNN/Money recently ran an article about piggybacking on your neighbor’s wireless internet service rather than paying for your own, and they have since published a followup detailing reader reactions. While two-thirds of their poll respondents considered such network “sharing” to be stealing, the majority of those that actually took the time to write in were of the “if it’s in my house, then I’m free to use it” mindset.

So where do you stand? If your neighbor’s WiFi signal extended into your space, and it wasn’t secured in any way, would you make use of it? If you have a wireless network of your own, how would you feel about others using it? And have you taken any steps to stop them?

In my opinion, network owners are responsible for securing their connections, and I wouldn’t really have an ethical problem with using someone else’s network if they broadcast an unsecured signal it into my house. That being said, I wouldn’t be comfortable depending on someone else connection for my internet access. This is purely a pragmatic issue, as I wouldn’t want to deal with the possible unreliability of someone else’s wireless network. After all, they could pull the plug at any time. And there’s also the issue of data security — there’s no telling what someone might be doing with your data as it passes through their network.

As far as someone accessing my network goes, I’d be pissed. I’m actually posting this message over my wireless network, and it’s as secure as I can make it… It’s password protected, the signal is encrypted, and I also have MAC authentication turned on, such that only ‘approved’ computers are allowed to connect. While none of these measures are foolproof, they should keep out all but the most determined riff-raff. And if someone did manage to get through, I’d definitely consider them to be intruders. The one security measure that my router doesn’t offer, but which I’d really like, is the ability to stop it from broadcasting its SSID. This basically equates to stopping it from shouting out its name as loud as it can, such that the network is more or less invisible to those that don’t already know that it’s there.

Of course, if you want free wireless access and you don’t want to risk stepping on your neighbor’s toes, then you could always seek out free WiFi networks in your area. Or you could be to approach your neighbor about sharing both their connection and the cost. While this sort of sharing is almost certainly against the ISP’s rules, there virtually no way they can enforce it, and it could save both you and your neighbor a decent chunk of change.

Published on August 16th, 2005 - 111 Comments
Filed under: Online

About the author: is the founder and editor-in-chief of this site. He's a thirty-something family man who has been writing about personal finance since 2005, and guess what? He's on Twitter!

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111 Responses to “Piggybacking on Your Neighbor’s WiFi”

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  1. 1
    jim Says:

    If you leave your wireless open and I can reach it while I’m in my own home, then I don’t consider it stealing. A lot of the new network admin programs make it easy to lock down your network and require a WEP key, you don’t need to navigate through difficult to understand screens to do it, so there is no excuse.

    However, if I was using someone else’s wireless, I would be considerate of my bandwidth usage. I wouldn’t be downloading videos, I’d restrict it to just surfing the web, just out of courtesy.

  2. 2
    Madame X Says:

    I briefly discovered I could pick up someone’s leaking signal on my wi-fi enabled PDA. It was nice to be able to quickly log on and check something once in a while without turning on my laptop, for which I only have dial-up. It was very minor usage, and I didn’t think it would be disruptive. But I guess they figured it out because lately it doesn’t work well– it’s not that it’s asking me to log in, I just get network error messages if I try to actually view a website. If I had wi-fi and could be sure that there was no risk to the security of my own data, I wouldn’t mind sharing with a neighbor.

  3. 3
    mmb Says:

    Where do I stand? I don’t think this is ethical. Just because someone leaves their door open doesn’t mean it’s an invitation to use their stuff. To me this is no different. I get free wireless when I want it, thanks to many places in Seattle within walking distance that offer free WiFi, but even if I didn’t I couldn’t do it.

  4. 4
    Financial Fruition Says:

    If the person does not take an precaution to turn on the very easy to turn on security features and I can merely turn on my wireless card and it lets me on the internet from your wi-fi while I am in my underwear and socks sitting on my sofa then what’s wrong there? Do I have a case for me with regards to a person’s leaking wi-fi onto my “property” and the unproven long-term effects of it? No, so why do they have any rights if they didn’t secure it. However, if I “broke in” or “hacked” a person’s wi-fi then I can see a problem.

  5. 5
    Matt Says:

    My wireless connection is wide open…my bandwidth isn’t scarce enough to worry about jealously guarding it, and anything _important_ goes through SSH or an encrypted OpenVPN tunnel anyway.

    In fact, for a while I was _deliberately_ sharing the connection with my downstairs neighbors. I might lock it down if someone piggybacking on the connection was doing something that disrupted my use of it, but so far that hasn’t been an issue.

  6. 6
    ~Dawn Says:

    I would use the free wireless if it was in my home.
    I believe it is the same as someone watering their lawn, If the power of the hose is so strong they water some of my lawn, I’m not going to complain to them to turn it down, I’ll use it. It helps cut back on some of my water use.

  7. 7
    jim Says:

    I don’t believe the analogy of the open door, come in and use my stuff is correct – that’s why you probably have a strong voice against it. Dawn’s is more accurate, say someone was watering their lawn and some of the water spilled into a puddle on my property… you paid for the water, it’s technically yours, but if I wanted to put it in a bucket and water my plants, it’s probably okay. I see wireless as the same.

  8. 8
    nickel Says:

    I agree that the ‘open door’ analogy has very little to do with this. You are not physically trespassing on your neighbor’s property when you use their bandwidth so, from that standpoint, it’s totally unrelated. While the ISP almost certainly places restrictions on the sharing of a connection, that contract is between them and the customer (your neighbor). As such, it is incumbent upon the customer to take reasonable precautions to be sure that they live up to their end of the bargain (if they choose to do so).

    If I had to come up with an analogy, this would be more along the lines of finding a newspaper in a public place. Is it okay to pick it up and read it? Here’s my take… If the person that purchased it is nowhere to be found, then yes, I’d say it would be. If, on the other hand, the owner has taken reasonable precautions to secure the paper — let’s say that you ‘found’ it folded up under their arm as they were strolling by — then no, it’s not okay.

  9. 9
    Another Viewpoint Says:

    How would you feel about someone listening in on conversations you are having on your cordless telephone or over a baby monitor? These are broadcast technologies, just like wifi.

    Or, to make a more similar analogy, how would you feel about someone connecting to your cordless phone base from their house and making calls while you are away, even if there were no charge incurred?

  10. 10
    Madame X Says:

    The newspaper analogy is a great one. I subscribe to the paper, and when I am done, I try to prop it on the edge of the trash can in case someone wants it. (But I don’t go out of my way to make sure it doesn’t fall in.) If someone takes it, great– makes no difference to me because I’m going to buy the paper anyway. But if someone seemed to be following me every single day just to make sure they could grab my paper when I was done, I’d be annoyed and think they should just pay for it themselves if they want it that badly.

  11. 11
    nickel Says:

    Listening in on conversations over baby monitors or cordless phones is a different beast… Nobody here is suggest that intercept your neighbors communications. But you do have an interesting point with the cordless phone analogy.

  12. 12
    Cap Says:

    yeah it has always been an issue. I believe I’m one of the first to have wifi setup in my neighborhood (about 4 years ago?).. as time passed we started seeing more and more signal, we have like 5-7 different networks that we can connect to!

    it was interesting to see the progress too through time.. each of those network slowly have more security on it.. WEP password key, MAC filtering, etc. etc.

    ah, technology. anyways, it’s a bit iffy. without their approval, its definitely stealing bandwidth.. but how is that different than without their knowledge? tough call. a user should have their own responsibility to secure their own network. I think it could be overwhelming to some people, but if they could get it to setup to work, they should be able to set a simple password. that’ll deter most people easily.

  13. 13
    maribeth Says:

    I have a wireless network and so do two of my neighbors. Their networks are unsecured and so if mine drops out for any reason, my computer automatically connects to theirs. This is really annoying when I want to use the printer (to which I am also wirelessly connected) and have somehow gotten connected up to the wrong network without noticing.

    Hey neighbors! Secure your networks!

  14. 14
    Blaine Moore Says:

    I’d use a wireless network, if I had something to connect wirelessly with. People should secure their networks if they want to transmit it into my home.

  15. 15
    Randall Says:

    When my wife and I moved to the D.C. region, we had to get our net situation settled because my wife kept her old job and would be telecommutting. Comcast originally said they would have a technician to us in 48 hours, but then backtracked and said ten days. My upstairs neighbor had an unencrypted wifi system that broadcast at a 100% signal strength in to my home. I didn’t like piggybacking, but I didn’t feel bad about it either. If my neighbor plays a great album extremely loud (actually, with my walls, extremely loud is a 2/10), then should I pug my ears so as not to enjoy it? Should I pay them for the entertainment? SHould contact the RIAA and complain that they are freely broadcasting copyrighted music? Honestly, take some responsibilty upon yourself and encrypt the system. It takes two minutes and is built into pretty much every modern system, including operating systems. I left a note on my neighbor’s door to tell them they should protect their sytem from hackers, after we had our system up and running. Thanks, neighbor!

  16. 16
    jim Says:

    If I had a landline and someone wanted to use it and it would have no discernible impact on my use (or any cost) of the system, then I wouldn’t care. Listening in on a conversation with a baby monitor is not a fair analogy though.

    Do believe the newspaper analogy is best for this case.

  17. 17
    Mike Says:

    I have no problem with sharing my wifi connection with anyone. The only problem is that if someone using your “free” wireless does something illegal,ie: downloading kiddie porn, downloading Star Wars III, sending the president death threats, etc.. then when the FBI does a lookup it comes back to your house. Sure you say I’ve never done anything like that, but you’ve opened the door for them to bust in and go through all your stuff just to disprove it. Also if your doing something bandwidth intensive, like downloading the latest Linux distro, you’ll lose some of your bandwidth to your neighbor. Other than that I have no problem with it!

  18. 18
    Jonathan Says:

    My neighbors keeps their’s wide open too… It’s almost annoying because my laptop defaults to their network since it there is no WEP key like on mine, and I don’t like the idea of sending all my passwords into the air unencrypted. But many people leave their access points open on purpose, how can you tell if it’s not so?

  19. 19
    jim Says:

    Jonathan,
    In Windows you can specify the order in which to connect onto known networks and that should solve your problem.

  20. 20
    shrikant Says:

    You also need to remember – you piggyback on a neighbor’s WiFi – no telling if he or she is intercepting your communications and logging all your data.. after all – you trust his router now :)

  21. 21
    Jeremy Says:

    I’ve wondered about the legal liability question. Does anyone know if there have been any test cases in which this happened? Give that the RIAA has sued everyone and his brother, I would assume that someone tried this defense.

  22. 22
    Uncle Foobar Says:

    Funny Thing: what about leaving your WiFi unsecured EXACTLY for the legal ramifications?

    I leave mine open, and when all the pedophile/terrorist/baby killers next store wreak havoc on the world with the connection, then how can i be liable?

    AOL had a test case about a similar topic: if you police it you are responsible for it; if not then…

    Foob

  23. 23
    Micho Says:

    OK…I’ll admit it. I’ve been borrowing my neighbor’s internet access without his permission. I’m in a undisclosed Central American country and stealing WiFi is no fellony here. Cable internet access is horribly high ($52 per month). I hid a wireless expander (Linksys WRE54G paired to his BEFW11S4) inside a lamp outside my house and pulling in as much as 400 kbits (not that I am, but I could).

    http://img473.imageshack.us/my.....0738sj.jpg

    Didn’t know it was such as big deal until I started to read the opinions of other people. Don’t know if I would stop doing it as to my best knowledge I’m not hurting anyone.

  24. 24
    Tom Says:

    My wi-fi is open on purpose. I had it locked down for awhile, but cable went out briefly one day when I really needed it and, hey, I was able to log on to someone else’s open wi-fi and get what I needed. That was enough for me. My wi-fi network is secure: I control the secure user/id and password and port to my router. I control access to all of the PC’s attached to my network.

    The raw internet connection, however is wide open. SSID is broadcasr, not MAC address required. Why, I think EVERYONE should be set up this way. I think we should have a country where just about everywhere you go, you can get an internet signal.
    I think the only people against it are the service providers and the paranoid.

  25. 25
    F. D. Bryant III Says:

    My personal opinion on it is that anything that travels off of my private property is fair game. Wireless phones, network connection, water, – whatever. If you can access it without physically coming on my property then it is public domain.

    That doesn’t mean I don’t have a right to secure my connection. That is why if you don’t want someone on your network it is best to use WPA. All the other methods mentioned are pretty much worthless. The only thing they really do is prevent someone from accidently getting on your network.

  26. 26
    Scott Says:

    Here is an answer to the legality question, at least for Winnebago county in IL (my home state)

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/cmp/20...../183702832

  27. 27
    phd Says:

    The fact that there is no physical trespass probably has very little to do with whether it is legal or not. By analogy, the Supreme Court said in Katz that no physical trespass is required for the police to have searched or seized your property under the Fourth Amendment.

    In my opinion, it is a problem that will never really be resolved by the courts. By the time the courts really get around to it, most cities will have implemented free wifi citywide (or will be well on their way).

  28. 28
    Jose Anes Says:

    I have piggybacked on other’s wifi but not for long periods. A good example is when I supervise contractors in the rental properties. To keep working on my normal job I sit at the property and piggyback on the neighbors wifi.

  29. 29
    David Wite Says:

    If someone is going to subject my body with RF (radio freqency) w/o my permission, then I have a MORAL obligation to intercept and use those RF signal causing me cancer to what ever means I see fit!

  30. 30
    Mirv Says:

    well, if a connection is open, why not, it is unlikely the users will be hurt because most ISPs today come with enough bandtwith for over twenty users, and most sites cannot stream data that quickly anyway. there are connections with 512KBps(considered low end), however most sites restrict upload rates per user, i rarely see over 100 kilobytes per second. my uncle shares his network, he has no problem, it is no big deal. some people are greedy though.

  31. 31
    gemniii Says:

    It’s a two way street – If you can access the net thru their wifi there is a strong chance they can access your computers. Make sure your security is tight.

  32. 32
    Rob Says:

    I’m deleting the bookmark for this site. If you lack the moral discernment for this eminently simple matter, I don’t trust your advice for my finances either.

    It’s about honoring your agreements. You sign or consent to a user agreement with the ISP which includes prohibition of connection sharing. It is therefore wrong for you to share it, or for your neighbor to share it, or for you to consume an unethically shared connection. Just because you CAN take something doesn’t mean it is ethical to do so. It either belongs to you, or it does not. The Internet connection belongs to the ISP and you or your neighbor pay a fee for the right to access it. Just because a wireless connection enters the airspace of your property doesn’t make it yours to do with as you please.

    I really worry about a culture when moral relativism is so pervasive that we forget the most basic tenets of ethical behavior. Taking something that does not belong to you is stealing, no matter how you like to rationalize it.

  33. 33
    nickel Says:

    Wow, seems like this post really touched a nerve with you. For what it’s worth, we’ve paid for our own internet connection as long as we’ve had access to the internet (well, that’s not completely true, as we used to get free dialup through the University). I don’t have a problem with people doing it, but I’ve never done it myself. And we’ve always locked down our wireless network in every way possible (short of unplugging it). Anyway, by the looks of the responses here, you’re going to have delete an a lot of bookmarks to personal finance blogs, as an awful lot of people think it’s okay.

  34. 34
    Debt Free Says:

    I noticed that a few years ago, actually even about 6 months ago, most of the areas I was in had plenty of unsecured netowrks. That is much less the case now. Over the last 30 days or so, only about 25% of the WiFi networks I’ve run across have been open. My own WiFi net is unencrypted now, but I don’t braodcast my SSID & live in a fairly remote area. I should turn the WPA on for safety though.

  35. 35
    Aeryck1st Says:

    I agree with Rob, just because you CAN take something, doesn’t mean you should. To address your comment Nickel “Anyway, by the looks of the responses here, you’re going to have delete an a lot of bookmarks to personal finance blogs, as an awful lot of people think it’s okay.” You can’t possible justify using other peoples’ wifi just because the majority of people think its ok. It should be whether or not the person who owns the wifi thinks its ok, go ask them instead of just taking it.

  36. 36
    Matt Says:

    I am torn.

    First thing I think most people can agree on is that it is wrong to “Hack” into a password protected system. This is the equivalant to digital breaking and entering. Back to the newspaper analogy this would be the equivalent to picking a lock to access another’s newspaper.

    Secondly, I am un-aware of liability precident. Going back to someone emailing the president death threats, Kiddie porn, etc. Would someone please enlighten me on this? I suppose most of the time the law enforcement would have a tough time convicting you and play heck trying to decide who was using your connection. But man, what a hassle. What would happen legally if someone where to take another’s newspaper left in a public place, roll it up and assault another with it. I would hope there wouldn’t be a wacky enough judge to assign liability to you for that.

    Lastly, where the newspaper comparison ends is the fact that the person with an unsecured network is unwittingly leaving their connection to the public.

    Ideally I would like manufacturers to send each new wireless router out with encryption turned on by default. This would be easy enough, publish the password in the owner’s manual. Then if someone intentially turns encryption off it could be assumed they have no problem with the publiic using the connection.

  37. 37
    Scott Says:

    There are so many unsecured wifi spots in my neighborhood that sometimes my computer automatically connects to one and I don’t even know it.

  38. 38
    Jeremy Says:

    Does it go both ways? If I have an open Access Point on the network and you use it to connect to the internet, does that give me legal standing to connect to you? By my provider’s terms of service, I am responsible for everything that goes on in my network. If someone is being malicious and connecting through my network, can’t I be malicious on them?

  39. 39
    jim Says:

    Jeremy: If someone is stealing from you, does that make it right for you to steal from them? No, and I think that rule applies to WiFi as well. Spend that time to secure your AP unless you’re just looking for an excuse, then you don’t really care about legalities :)

  40. 40
    greg Says:

    I understand that everyone is talking about the ethics of using someone else’s wireless.

    I’m sorta beyond that. Well, let me give you the whole situation…

    I am in my house, brick house surronded by a large yard (about a half acre) and lots of tall trees. My neighbors are all on similar set ups, so there is a great deal of distance between us. I bought one of these new lap tops that automatically tries to get on the internet when it turns on, and strangely enough it can. (I do not personally have wireless internet and I have no idea where it’s coming from.) It says it has a low signal, but it connects at between 11 and 24 Mbps, which seems high to me since I’ve only previously used dialup at speeds like 32kbps. My thoughts are that if the signal can get through all the distance between me and the nearest house, when my cordless phone gets all staticy when I go out to the mailbox, then I guess I get free internet….UNLESS

    and here comes my question: what can the source of this wireless tell about me?

    I have no idea where it’s coming from. All my neighbors are very old and I didn’t even know any of them had computers. When I use this connection, can they see the websites I go to? Can they read my email now? If it says I’m connected at 11Mbps and I download something at 153kbps am I slowing them down? My thinking since it said I had a very low signal strength is that I’m using a very small portion of their connection that was already lost to them anyway, since it’s obviously being broadcast way over here into my house. They must have one fast connection.

    If anyone can find a way to contribute helpful information to this long and rambling Grampa Simpson story I’ve told, I’ll thank ya for it.

  41. 41
    Blaine Moore Says:

    Greg, yes, they technically can see what websites you visit and what emails you download.

    If you want to avoid having them be able to do that, you need to either use your own internet connection or else use encryption. You want to use SSL connections whenever possible, whether you are connecting to a POP3 server for your email or if you are using webmail.

    I use Google Applications for Domains, which includes a gmail interface for my business; whenever I want to connect, I make sure to use https instead of http so that I know that I am using a secure connection.

    The same goes for any time you are using free internet at a store or airport, as well.

  42. 42
    greg Says:

    First, thank you for the help. I didn’t expect an answer so quickly.

    I’m pretty sure no one cares, because I have keys to most of these houses so i can water plants and feed cats and fish and birds and check mail for these people when they go out of town. And I am the one that was previously subjected to copious amounts of excess radiation unknowingly, so why not get something for my trouble?

    The super evil thing I was going to do that I wasn’t sure about, was check my yahoo mail and myspace. So far I haven’t done anything that asked for a password.

  43. 43
    Jose Says:

    Referenced in Money and Investing.

  44. 44
    REBECCA Says:

    we did piggy back our nieghbors wi-fi until they moved. We tried not to abuse this, not downloading huge files and things.
    Then we got our own wi-fi, and locked it down as tight as we could. I wouldn’t mind sharing with some of my neighbors, but I’d like to have some control over it.

  45. 45
    Dig Says:

    WEP and MAC address protection were always extremely weak protections, WPA is moderate, and WPA2 is good although not fool proof either. Hopefully now in 2007 no one is foolish enough to be without at least standard WPA2.

    While I wouldn’t mind very much if my neighbors used my wireless connection it is rude and raises a lot of legal issues. A neighbor stealing your internet who does something illegal can get you blamed for what they did. Conversly if you’re using someone elses connection and they do something illegal, but they can prove that you were also using their connection that can get you into hot water.

    Also if you as a wireless user are using SSL that does not protect your information at all from whoever has the wireless transmitter or base station. Just remember if you sign on to your bank, use your credit card, or check your email on an unknown network they can see everything if they wanted to.

  46. 46
    Anthony Scarano Says:

    If it’s in my home you aren’t going to stop me from using it. It is the equivalent of my neighbor going out and buying a new sofa-but the sofa is too large and busts through my wall into my living room. Then they want to arrest you for sitting on it.

  47. 47
    Simon Says:

    Anthony Scarano, you sound like a real nice neighbour :( You analogy is false. The sofa would have caused damange to your wall and it would be physically invading your space. Funny wireless signals you’re used to! If I found someone had an unsecured wireless I’d find out who it was and let them know, out of common courtesy, although I guess saying, “Nah, stuff ‘em” and taking what’s theirs is easier.

    Last week I found someone had been stealing my bandwidth. It wasn’t because I couldn’t be bothered to secure my router, it was because when I set the router up the CD s/w didn’t work, so I phoned support. They talked me through set-up but never mentioned I had to secure wireless even when using wired (which I do) so I had no reason to assume wireless was enabled and unsecured by default. If I had intended to use wireless of course I would have secured it.

    Looks like you and a few others would see me as fair game for theft, then, much like my neighbours.

    Just because something is easy to take it doesn’t mean it’s right to take it. What a society we live in.

  48. 48
    Brandon Says:

    Plain and simple, if you don’t want someone on your wi-fi connection, then secure it. You might as well assume that if you haven’t protected it, someone else is using it and you’re fine with it.

    You don’t need fancy analogies, or elaborate true stories.

  49. 49
    Andrea Says:

    When I first moved into my new apartment I was very grateful that some of my neighbors had unsecured wireless internet as it meant I was able to take care of e-mails, online banking etc for the first few days before I was able to gt my own internet connection.

    But I would never consider just stealing their connection for the long term.

  50. 50
    joseph c. Says:

    Legislation is being considered to force wifi manufacturers to enable encryption by default. Perhaps this will slow the unauthorized access issue down. Until this is done, I will consider an open wifi to be an invitation to use it. It takes two minutes to enable one so no excuse exists not to secure one if security is on the owner’s mind. Also, the ordinary wifi owner has no way of knowing who is using his signal. Perhaps the paranoid power user could install monitoring software but would be more inclined to encrypt the signal than to keep it open for all to use. So, the key to sharing a neighbor’s connection is to respect the access by not downloading illegal stuff, threatening people, or squandering the bandwidth. The ISP can id the offender if he accesses email accounts or other identifying portals since they do keep records of access.

    Personally, I lock my home account but will use my parent’s neighbor’s wifi for light browsing.

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